Land of memories


Enrique Mayer’s oral history of the Peruvian agrarian reform may have revolutionized its study


Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform
Enrique Mayer
2009, Duke University Press
299 pages, some plates

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IN LATIN AMERICA, military morals have been shaped not only by raw power, but at times have also been exercised by privation. In short, there have been good soldiers as well as bad ones.

While there may have been some crude relief in the security circles of Washington when the Peruvian military joined the continental trend and took power in 1968, this soon turned to dismay as General Juan Velasco Alvarado launched his “revolution”.

Velasco cocked a snook at the country’s creole oligarchy and adopted a “third way” of radical reform that was neither capitalist nor Marxist, but has since been labelled populist.

At the heart of the regime’s strategy to change the balance of forces within Peruvian society, by eliminating the power of oligarchic landowners, was agrarian reform.

And so began the extensive expropriation of large landholdings and their redistribution to newly established co-operatives: between 1969 and 1980, almost 360,000 families and members of co-operatives gained plots.

The scale of reform was such that it had a long-term impact on Peruvian popular memory and influenced political developments well into the 1990s. Those who satanize the Velasco strategy and other such populist experiments may have failed to take note: Peruvians treasure land.

Epic story

Enrique Mayer has explored this drama in one of the most important ways – through oral history – and begins his epic story by recounting how, in 1969 at the age of 25, he landed at the northern Peruvian port of Talara, after a decade studying abroad, just weeks after the army had expropriated the privately held sugar estates.

The anthropologist spent a year in the 1990s, just after the collapse of Sendero Luminoso’s insurgency, travelling across Peru to interview a spectrum of protagonists and observers of the reform process – former landlords, expropriators, officials, peasant leaders and farming families.

He brings together the accounts of those who lived through the agrarian reform, those who documented it, and those who analysed it. His subjects relive the events with great emotion and evince tangible empathy.

Mayer also provides valuable insights into the working of oral history itself, and how best to interpret the cocktail of memories, opinions, assumptions and conjectures that comprise it.

By transforming what has always been a dry topic for students of Latin American politics – full of head-spinning statistics and stultifying class analysis – into a fascinating journey into popular and personal memories of this momentous period, Mayer may have revolutionized its study.

The result is a compelling and accessible account of one of the most important social upheavals in Latin American history.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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